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Jul 28, 2006

On authority

There are two types of authority: relational and institutional. Both always coexist in any organization and any culture, but one of the two usually dominates.

Relational authority is rooted in reciprocity: A chief makes certain favors to some of his subjects; they return those favors by supporting the chief. It is a very effective form of human relations, partly because our brains are wired to keep track of who owes us and who do we owe in return. The only issue here is that the chief can provide only a limited number of favors, so he has to develop a group of favorites who receive most of favors. The favorites develop a sense of loyalty for him, and can be counted on for continuous support. This creates class system, which is constantly challenged by those who end up in less favorable status. So, inequality is a result of the arrangement; not only between the chief and the people, but also among the people. This is because the authority itself is derived from the chief’s ability to provide one person a favor at the expense of others. If everyone gets the same treatment, this type of authority simply does not exist. The chief would have no power, and be an ineffective leader, which in turn, further diminishes his authority.

Institutional authority is also rooted in reciprocity, but of a different, generalized kind (I am loosely using Karl Polianyi’s term). It’s reciprocity between a person and the polity. It is based on a set of rules, to which all or most of people consent. When the rules are developed, no one should be able to tell who they will benefit in the future, so people make sure the rules are as fair and equitable as possible, and promise to comply even if in the future, they may not personally benefit from the application of these rules. The chief then becomes a guarantor of the rules. He is basically, a hired manager, someone who is trusted to enforce the rules, but not trusted to change or develop them. It is his office rather than his person that possesses authority. In a paradoxical sort of way, the chief’s authority comes from inability to provide favors, because he is bound by the rules which are beyond his control. People agree to tolerate his leadership precisely because he promises to stick to the rules.

OK, that was a bit of theory. In practice, I don’t want to be the administrator who makes individual deals with individual faculty. Although some flexibility is expected and is healthy, a set of firm written rules should govern our practices. These rules cannot change too often, and should reflect basic principles of fairness and equity. In the Academia, there is place for seniority considerations (especially in tenure and promotion decisions); there is also the reality of contractual differences between full-time and adjunct faculty. We have to agree on who has more expertise in specific areas, but once such an agreement is reached, it should hold. Outside those very specific cases, everyone should be assumed to have the same worth and dignity, and pull the same weight. More work should be better compensated than less work, but the rules of determining what constitutes more work have to be developed collectively. The agreement on what the rules are should always outweigh personal relationships among faculty and between faculty and leaders. Most decisions should be transparent and well-reasoned, and dissociated from personal likes or dislikes. I want to make sure the rules are not twisted to provide someone a little extra benefit. Even though the human instinct is to be popular, and to give at least some people what they want, in the long run, I would rather have most people dislike me, but admit I am fair than some people like me a lot, while others feel exploited and alienated.

Now, I am not naïve; where humans meet, they tend to engage in personal relationships, and those by very definition are partial and biased. Yet even if some bias is inevitable, its influence should be relatively small or at least limited. Moreover, no system provides actual equality. However you set the rules, some people will be in a position to benefit from them more than others. Yet the inequality created by a system that is transparent and fundamentally fair is different from the sort of inequality produced by the relational authority. It’s a difference between a byproduct and the essence. In relational authority, the system works because of inequality; in institutional authority, the system works despite inequalities. The latter systems tend to work much better in the long run, and everyone comes out better off in the end.

Jul 21, 2006

Big ideas

I was taking my son Gleb to the airport on Wednesday, and he asked me how was my job and if I had any big ideas about it. My response was that the job is great, and yes, I do have some ideas. I was not sure whether they are big though. What I am quite sure about is that we need to streamline some of the procedures, and save/make some money for the School. Those two are actually closely related. We should probably consider expanding our off-campus offerings to both generate revenue for the School, and allow people to make some extra money, while offering quality programs. We need to try to get into some more grants. We also have to make sure we get accredited by the State and NCATE. Are these ideas big though?

Now, how do you come up with big ideas if what I inherited as a director are programs that are already very good, thoughtfully put together, and with some great track records? I have wonderful, talented faculty and competent staff. It clearly ain’t broken, so what am I going to fix? Management is really a form of service. My job is to make sure faculty have the means and right conditions to do their job well. It is in the classrooms and in the field where rubber meets the road, not in my office, or in my hard drive.

If one looks at education in general and teacher education in particular, one may notice quite a few significant improvements over the past 20 years or so. Those are mostly related to the wave of quality management techniques we have borrowed from the world of business. Various forms of accreditation, notably NCATE, fall under this broad category of systematic, incremental (and well, let’s admit it, tedious) improvements. This stuff is annoying but it works. No one came out of an NCATE review worse off than before. Yet it is essentially the same teacher education that was around long time ago. Just like modern car engines are vastly superior to those of the past, but they are still the same: burning gasoline mixed with air. What I would consider a big idea in education should be what a hydrogen engine is to the internal combustion one. In my opinion, we have not had such a big idea in education for about 100 years, since the advent of Progressivism. So, my answer to Gleb is that no, I don’t have any really big ideas. And maybe this is a good thing.

Yet we need to keep our eyes open, in case one of those appears. It’s about time, and we have many challenges that do not seem to go away. The tremendous rate of attrition among teachers is probably the central one. We keep training all these competent teachers, yet some 4 million Americans with teaching licenses do not teach. The root cause of the problem might be well beyond our reach, yet I cannot get rid of a feeling that something is missing in the very model of teacher education. Specifically, why the so-called hard-to-staff schools (mostly urban) present such a difficulty for young teachers? I mean, being a doctor or a firefighter, or a cop is also very stressful, but people do not quit in such large numbers. Perhaps one solution would be to concentrate on communication, acting skills, on the ability to relate to students? How about a boot camp for future teachers, something that would restructure their personality, their psyche, not just their knowledge and competencies?

Well, perhaps a number of small ideas are better than a search for a big one. But I still wonder…

Jul 15, 2006

Complexity and catch-22

I have spent most of the last week digging into the School’s procedures. Complex would be an understatement in describing those procedures. I began with our largest, elementary program, and asked our knowledgeable staff and program coordinators to put together a detailed description of who does what when in order for a student to go through the program. It is very clear to me that each and every step is necessary, and important. Each was introduced as a necessity, based on experience and good knowledge of both the program’s requirements, and our students. We have many checks to make sure students’ experience going through the program is as smooth as possible. Briefly, students turn in information sheet (which is really a pre-application), then submit an application to be accepted into the program, then they apply for Block I, and then Block II (student teaching, and then, ultimately, for the sate license. At each step, our staff and coordinators check whether they meet necessary requirements, and remind students what they are still missing (TB tests, background check, or a test). This creates enormous amount of work both for staff and for program coordinators.

We face what one may call catch-22 of program complexity, a paradox that I have observed before, and which seems to be common in the world of teacher education, and whole higher education. As some students fail to comply with somewhat complex state and institutional requirements, we introduce safety checks that would prevent very expensive and frustrating errors. An example of safety check would be an application form, a reminder letter, a required meeting. Yet the more safety checks we introduce, the more complex our programs become, and more difficult for students to follow all the steps (or jump through all the hoops, if you’re less generously inclined). So we are forced to increase our advising efforts, which take much time, and force faculty to think of new procedural checks that would catch a lot of common errors they encounter in advising. So, we create self-replicating complexity, because all checks become institutionalized, and never go away, while new ones can be added at any time. Note that all of this is done out of genuine concern for students. However, eventually, faculty and staff grow frustrated because so many students fail to follow procedures they laid out. Students grow frustrated because they cannot keep up with complexity of programs.

What is the way out of this? Can the programs be so clear that even the slowest of our students would understand its flow and become the responsible adult who monitors his or her own progress? I am not sure. We deal with young people who may or may not have the maturity level and experience necessary to get themselves through the program in a responsible manner. What we can do, can be this:

  1. Simplify and streamline the program requirements.
  2. Let computers do most checking (in our case, let Banner handle most of it)
  3. Make information available and clearly presented on the web; this is how contemporary kids learn about the world.

Jul 10, 2006

On vision, geeks, and technology

I have received congratulations on surviving the first week on the job. These were nice, but not warranted. It has been very interesting, and even fun. Everyone around me was so welcoming and supportive. I felt like a kid who got a new videogame for a birthday, and is anxious to figure out what it can do. OK, my ability to comprehend things was a bit overloaded, but I have learned a great deal about the School and its programs. And this is only the beginning; there is so much more to learn. My focus was to understand various office procedures: who turns in what form when, who enters the data where, etc. I really was enjoying reading the minds of people who designed the programs, and make them work so well.

It is my firm belief that only all faculty together can generate a vision for its school. In order to be shared and accepted, it has to come from within. My role is to help integrate various views and agendas into something coherent. We can actually start working on it only in the Fall, when everyone is back. In the meanwhile, I am trying to develop a list of smaller, more focused projects that will address specific challenges our School faces. Here are two examples:

  1. Problem: no money for faculty travel. A partial solution: Cut mailing and copying costs. For example, we can put all student teaching handbooks on-line, use more e-mail instead of snail mail for communication with students, encourage faculty to put their syllabi and handouts on-line. Can it save enough the money? I need to do some math on this, but it is clear that we are talking about thousands of dollars, easy money.

  2. Problem: too much manual data entry. As a result, our staff is overwhelmed with manual work, and has no time to think about improving and streamlining procedures. Much of the problem can be traced to the redundant databases: one is maintained by the University (Banners) and another we keep just for teacher education programs (Helix). The long-term solution is to phase out Helix and configure Banner to serve all our needs. This may take a while, partly because Banner is so new to begin with. However, there should be a number of short-term solutions. All we need to figure out is how to download data from Banner and upload it to Helix.

As one can see, much of my thinking on solutions involves the use of technology. So let me explain my relationship to it. I am probably more proficient than most university professors are, but I am not a geek. I belong to another group of people, let’s call them expert users (EU). Now, geeks are a clearly defined category. They are people who love technology. Unlike geeks, EU’s have no feelings for technology, no love for new gadgets, although they like to know what is generally available. A geek discovers a new amazing gadget, and then is looking for ways to use it. An EU has a specific practical problem, and only uses those bits of technology that can solve it. A geek is looking for an elegant solution. An EU prefers imperfect solutions, patches really, if those an be done quickly, cheaply, and without much training. If I can hammer virtual nails with a virtual microscope, so be it, and don’t tell me I am not doing it right. Geeks hate Microsoft, EU’s don’t care where stuff comes from, as long as it does the job. Geeks spend hours learning how their tools work. EU grows impatient if software does not make sense within an hour, and deems it unusable.

Nothing personal against geeks; in fact, some of my best friends are geeks. And both kinds of people are needed, of course. Just let the users, not the toolmakers be in control of which tools are used and how. Even the nicest of geeks tend to believe they know better what we need; they are often patronizing and sometimes arrogant to people who can’t code. In fact, they rarely understand the specific, practical problems users face, biggest of which is always lack of time to learn new technological tricks.

Anyway, this is enough philosophizing. Let’s try to use technology, but be cynical, pragmatic, and hard-headed about. Like any tool, it is only worth investing in (time and money, but mostly time) when the benefits are clearly obvious. So, mail merge training, anyone?

Jul 2, 2006


This blog is for the faculty and staff of the School of Teacher Education, University of Northern Colorado. By definition, it is also open to anyone on the web, although I am not worried about unwanted attention.

As your rookie director, I will try to share my thoughts, musings, and observations. Transparency is good for any transition, so I will strive to be transparent. Hopefully, this will allow us all to avoid mistakes and get the School where we want it to be.

Feel free to ignore the blog or give me feedback - both here (your responses become public) and privately through e-mail.

My first official action will be to thank Karon, Layne, and Meredith for a nice office, wonderful furniture, and little things like pens and sticky notes - they all make me feel welcome and somewhat important. Michael, the tech guy, has set me up with a nice computer.

It will take a while for me to learn everything about this School and its programs, but I am not at the zero mark either, thanks to Karon, Linda, Vicky, and Marita who started my crash course on the School's affairs. I plan to meet with all faculty individually, and if you're around in the summer, let's think about having a chat sometime soon. My intention is to have an open-door policy: if the door is wide open -- come in for anything, including small talk. If it is half-open, come in if you need to talk. If it is open just a bit - come in if it cannot wait. If it is shut, I am probably not there at all. Of course, Karon and I can both set specific appointments.

I am looking forward to solving the puzzle called STE and hope you all can help me with that. I am excited about the new job and its challenges, and hope to do some good, with your help.